Understaffed = Under the Gun

Summer is a slow time for lots of businesses. But don’t let these hot, heavy days lull you into anything less than total vigilance when it comes to your level of contact center staffing. Understaffing can create one of those vicious cycles that lead down, down, down in a horrific spiral of employee stress, customer dissatisfaction, rank inefficiency, general staff burnout and distress, crummy retention, and great difficulty in hiring and training new workers to be successful.

Your front line will usually recognize the problem almost immediately. They see who’s gone and whose attendance or performance is erratic. They may start pacing themselves self-protectively—that is, slowing down from their top speed in order to conserve their energy and good humor. They may refuse overtime they would normally have been glad to get or stop helping with collaborative, departmental projects.

The pressure of calls in queue mounts until the agents end up explicitly ignoring them as a survival mechanism. Whether you have a reader board or a bell, at some point folks have to tune out as a way of assuaging their own guilt about customers unheard and unhelped. Worse is when reps may rush customers through calls because they want to get to all the other customers waiting for them.

The longer understaffing continues, the more deeply reps will feel that they’re working too hard with nothing to show for it. Typically, they are well aware of the turnover that has taken place and understand the link between understaffing and the pressure they feel, but often they cannot see that conditions are ever going to be much better.

Why does understaffing hurt so much internally? Sure, some customers may have to wait a little longer and may be a little crankier when they finally talk to someone, but is that really such a big deal?

Here’s how a bunch of small things can add up. If you’re desperate to maintain service levels and you have no technologically based solution to implement—the ability to move overflow calls to another center, for instance—all you can try to do is increase live time.

So you might ask reps to extend their hours or ask supervisors and employees outside the contact center to take calls. You could limit breaks and off-phone time. And of course, you could really police the floor, get the lollygagging down to an absolute minimum and enforce every rule about timeliness and availability to the letter.

But what really happens when you pull out all the stops? Reps feel forced to work longer hours that are less convenient for them and start to stress (as may their family members). They get physically tired. They may be more inclined to error, which ratchets up the stress level another notch based on negative managerial feedback as well as a higher proportion of disgruntled customers. The dearth of breaks and “good times” makes the job more irritating. The loss of nonphone activity often leads to rote, mindless performance and a complete sense of burnout. Plus, the constant buzz of the alarm bell, flash of the reader board, or supervisory holler “Get back on the phone now!” is almost tailor-made to rub reps raw. Okay, now they’re wondering if the same job somewhere else might really be better….

Add to that the complication of supervisors taking calls themselves, which means they’re no longer available to answer questions, solve problems, or take those too-hot-to-handle escalated calls, upping the ante on everything else. Throw into the mix some well-meaning colleagues from other departments who are not only slow at call processing but are not up to date on the latest procedural and policy changes, and you have a contact center catastrophe in the making.

How do you start to drag yourself out of this abyss? It takes a combination of big-picture planning and from-the-floor decision making.

First, follow some general rules of humane scheduling. Not efficient scheduling. Not cost-effective scheduling. Rather, practices that ensure that real people can live within your scheduling parameters. Build in extra staff time to permit some flexibility for schedule changes, requests for time off, and the unexpected flu epidemic. Maintain enough of a cushion to be able to give reps an occasional and much-needed break from customers, whether in training, peer-led quality or coaching programs, or just other necessary service-related work.

Post schedules at least one full week in advance, and two if possible, even in the heat of peak season or crisis. Employees need to plan their lives, sometimes with more notice than managers do because they tend to have fewer resources overall.

Limit the blanket use of overtime to one to three weeks at a time per rep during peak seasons. People really start to fry if their extended hours are treated tacitly as semipermanent without an actual job change.

Reduce the gap between your staff’s stated availability and their actual ability to work. If you’ve specified certain availability requirements as a criterion for employment, some reps will tell you they’re available with their fingers crossed behind their backs. When you’re deep in a crunch and need them to make good on the promised hours, they may not be able to cope. So check again after hire, after training, and every couple of months or so. It’s better to know and be able to plan for a less-than-satisfactory reality than to be startled by it in the midst of other operations difficulties.

Always have a strategic, high-level check of schedule change decisions (that’s conceptually high level, not necessarily at the vice-president level), and don’t lose the forest (coverage) for the trees (satisfying individual employee needs) or vice versa. Many supervisory scheduling decisions are made on an ad hoc basis without sufficient regard for the domino effect of changes on the staffing plan or the way exceptions appear much larger to the employees who don’t get them than to the ones who do.

Avoid manipulating schedules or policies to accommodate “good” reps who have scheduling or attendance problems. It’s usually not crystal clear what the criteria are for being considered a good enough rep to get special treatment, so schedule changes often appear to be based on favoritism or personal relationships.

Maintain a large enough and experienced enough cadre of supervisors so that some decision-making authority is always present and accessible. When you need to add nondepartmental help, first add it as administrative and grunt work support so that your supervisors can continue to spend the majority of their time working directly with reps and handling higher-level service functions instead of being diverted to pound out phone calls.

If you do use internal colleagues instead of an outside group for overflow, keep this second-tier staff up to date on revised processes and procedures. It’s just as critical that you maintain currency with any outsource workers as well.

Be sure your initial training is comprehensive and complete so that new recruits do not become even more of a drag on an overburdened work group. Similarly, don’t hire “mirror foggers” just to get the phone answered. The backlog of follow-up to correct unnecessary problems can kill you even if you survive the original onslaught of calls.

And above all, tell the truth about prevailing conditions. Be optimistic, but don’t promise improvement faster than is practical. If you want your staff to have hope that they’ll be able to endure the crunch without quitting, they have to trust that you actually do know what’s going on and just how bad it is, and that you have a realistic plan for coping.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based contact center and customer service consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.